On Jan. 22, 2003, all nine Democratic presidential candidates appeared together for the first time. The setting wasn't a union hall, soup kitchen or school playground. Rather, as a top official with the U.S. bishops’ conference pointed out to me, it was at the annual dinner of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The abortion clinic is indeed the unifying symbol of the presidential wing of the Democratic Party, and nothing in the present campaign suggests it will be replaced. Of the five remaining major contenders, each one supports not only a rollback of the ban on partial-birth abortion but also reproductive human cloning.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party's front-runner, reaffirmed in late January that he would impose a “pro-choice” litmus test on any prospective nominee to the Supreme Court. “If you believe that choice is a constitutional right, and I do, and if you believe Roe v. Wade is the embodiment of that right,” Kerry was quoted on Newsmax.com as saying, “I will not appoint a justice to the Supreme Court who will undo that right.”

To be sure, this sad story line is nothing new. Since the Supreme Court in 1973 ruled in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, not one Democratic presidential candidate has called for the overturning of those decisions. The closest any of them came to a pro-life stance was in 1976 when candidate Jimmy Carter said ambiguously that he would favor a national law to restrict abortion.

But this story line was also not ever thus. As late as 1972, one of the party's top three presidential candidates, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, was an avowed pro-lifer. According to the Feb. 7, 1972, New York Times, Muskie said he treasured “the value of human life” and favored abortion only if necessary to save the life of the mother.

By contrast, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the party's eventual nominee, said he supported legal abortion, though not on demand.

What happened? Why is the basis of the party now cultural and not economic?

These questions are not only interesting because so many observant Catholics are registered Democrats but also important. If the pro-life movement is to succeed, it will need broad-based political support. Understanding how the party got to this mess should go a long way to helping clean it up.

Who's Pro-Life?

Any good answer must start by classifying the type of people who oppose legal abortion. In general they fall into three camps. The first, unsurprisingly, is composed of the religiously devout, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. Every major poll has consistently shown this to be true.

The second group is those who live in the South, Midwest and Rust Belt, especially in small towns and rural areas. Of the 30-odd states that place major restrictions on the procedure, most are in those three regions.

The third, surprisingly, are the white working class. According to a 2002 Gallup poll, 65% of people making less than $20,000 annually said they support major curbs on abortion and 60% of those making $20,000 to $29,999 did so. By contrast, 55% of Americans overall backed such restrictions.


During the Democratic Party's New Deal era, its presidential wing either represented or had ties with each of these three groups. As late as 1968 the party's kingmaker was Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, who practically embodied all three groups. He attended daily Mass, was the mayor of a large Midwestern city and lived for most of his life in a weathered bungalow in the working-class Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport.

Democratic presidential candidates could still represent these New Deal constituencies, but the events of the 1960s and ‘70s have made that increasingly difficult.

The change started with the decline of the big urban political machines in cities such as Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh. The leaders of these tended to be blue-collar Irish Catholics who represented a white ethnic clientele. As white city-dwellers began fleeing the cities en masse in the mid-‘60s, the machines lost the heart of their base.

Then, during the party's bloody and chaotic 1968 convention in Chicago, party delegates approved a reform body to study and recommend ways of altering the way presidential delegates were chosen. At that time the aim of the commission was modest — to open up the party to young people, whom party bosses had excluded in ‘68. But by mid-1969 the commission had acquired a revolutionary intent — to end the Vietnam War and remake the Democrats as the party of the young, women and minorities.

The 28-member body became known as the McGovern or McGovern-Fraser Commission (1969-72), after its chairmen, Sen. McGovern and Rep. Donald Fraser of Minnesota.

The commission's staff and membership ended up being dominated by opponents of the war. They tended to be upper middle class and secular rather than working class and religious. Indeed, one of the commission's early interns was 21-year-old Alex Sanger, grandson of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and currently president of the organization's international branch.

As a result, the McGovern commission abused its mandate. It gave the national party unprecedented power over state and local parties. And it rewrote the rules by which presidential delegates were selected, requiring soft quotas for women, young people and blacks.

In so doing the McGovern commission revolutionized the way the party picked its presidential nominee. Under the old boss system, which had been in place since 1832, local and state party leaders chose the candidate, whose prospects could be bolstered by running in a handful of state primaries and caucuses.

In its place the McGovern commission created the modern primary system. The number of state primaries jumped from 16 to 28. And party bosses lost control over who became the party's nominee and direct only one-third of party delegates. The ultimate symbol of this revolution occurred at the 1972 convention, when Mayor Daley's Illinois delegation was denied seating.

By revolutionizing the way the Democratic Party chose its leaders, the McGovern commission revolutionized the makeup of its followers.

One major group to join the reformers was “pro-choice” feminists. Previously many if not most feminists had been aligned with the Republican Party, which had been the party of the middle and upper classes. But the feminist movement began to switch sides in 1972. Taking advantage of the commission's new soft quotas for women as presidential delegates, Bella Abzug and others were able to get into the party leadership on the ground floor.

But by bringing feminists into the Democratic Party, the McGovern commission alienated each of the three major pro-life constituencies.

Where They Went

Many changed their registration to Republican or identified with the Republican Party.

Others simply stayed home during Democratic primaries, thus increasing the power of the party's social liberals. Indeed, in the January Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary 55% of Democratic voters had a four-year-college education. By contrast, only 42% of all voters in the 2000 presidential election had a university degree.

There's no question the above reasons don't fully explain why the abortion clinic is the defining symbol of the Democratic Party's presidential wing. The Supreme Court's rulings in Roe and Doe were indispensable. So was the rise of the New Right in the mid to late 1970s in the Republican Party.

But the decline of the big-city machines and the advent of the modern primary system arguably impact the Democratic Party the most today. As things stand, pro-life candidates simply can't win in Democratic primary contests.

A classic example would be that of Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who announced in December he was retiring after 31 years in Congress. In theory Breaux is an ideal presidential nominee: a deal maker, smart, likable, moderate, from a Southern state.

Nevertheless, as he well knows, his pro-life position would be an automatic disqualifier. “You can't get through the nomination process,” he once told me plainly. “I think you could win the general election — but not the primary.”

Mark Stricherz, a Phillips Foundation Fellow, is a writer living in Washington, D.C.